Drs. Neff, Stevens and Waldron are practicing dentists are co-authors of the books “So You Want To Be A Dentist?: What you Must Know to Succeed in Dentistry” and “So Now You’re A Dentist?”. They also co-host the Dental Realist Podcast.

When We Were in Dental School …


When we were in dental school, we were under the assumption that dentistry was easy: a dental student graduates dental school, enters private practice, patients willingly and happily come to see the new dentist, the same patients gladly pay their bills in a timely manner, and the dentist goes home at night stress-free. When we talked to practicing dentists before and during dental school, this was the picture they painted. But after several years of being in private practice, we realized that the three of us were experiencing the same growing pains as dentists and found ourselves wishing we had been better prepared for real-world dentistry while in dental school.

Our trials in dentistry led to our desire to help other dentists avoid many of the unnecessary pitfalls we experienced. To do so, we wrote the books So You Want To Be A Dentist? and So Now You’re A Dentist?, and we also started the Dental Realist Podcast. There are many things in dentistry that a dentist needs to experience to become a better dentist. Obviously, the more crowns one preps and the more fillings one places leads to better proficiency in restoring teeth. But there are many other areas in which dentists fail that we believe could be easily taught in dental school.

Debt is Real
Dental school debt is often a necessary evil. Most students entering dental school don’t have the means to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their education without borrowing the money. However, after dental school there are many more decisions that you must make when it comes to borrowing money. Borrowing more and more money affects a dentist’s ability to take home a higher income, but oftentimes more debt is taken on without a thorough evaluation of how it will affect the bottom line.

Dental suppliers and sales reps will eagerly tell you that you need the latest and greatest dental equipment and technology and that it will increase your office’s production and in turn increase your income. But this isn’t usually the case. A new crown milling machine will not increase the amount of crowns your patients need, and the latest endo handpiece will not cause your patients to have more toothaches. But the debt that is incurred from purchasing these items can cause more headaches for you. When you take on debt for that new milling machine, the payment is due each month whether you do five crowns or 100. More debt is not always necessary, and usually it will not increase your professional happiness.

Don’t Ignore the Small Stuff
While it is important to provide high quality dentistry, there are two things that patient will remember the most about their experience at your office—if it hurt and how you made them feel. Some dentistry is uncomfortable. Try to minimize the discomfort, but you can’t eliminate all pain. But making patients feel important and cared for is almost always in your control. Make sure you use good manners and insist that your staff do the same. Thank patients for coming to your office and let them know you want what is best for their oral health. It goes a long way in letting them know you appreciate them and makes them want to come back.

It is our firm belief that it is incredibly disrespectful of the dentist to not run on time. Who in their right mind wants to go somewhere where they are disrespected? In contrast, we love going places where we are treated with respect and things run efficiently (think Apple Store). We happily return to places where we know they value us, our money and our time.

How do you run on time? It’s really not that hard. It takes some effort at first, but once you get it down, it’s simple. Figure out how long your procedures take to perform. Also, make sure you have sufficient staff to run efficiently. Then schedule your appointments accordingly. Don’t be afraid to let your patients know that you are reserving the chair time exclusively for them, that you will be running on time for their appointment and that you expect them to be on time. Nowadays, it is almost expected that when someone goes to see a doctor or dentist, they will have to wait well past their appointment time to be seen. You will wow your patients if you make it a goal to run on time.

Be polite to your patients and run your office on time. Be respectful of your patients and their time. They will in turn have greater respect for you, and you will build a stronger practice. These may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many dentists ignore them.

Dental Insurance Limits Your Freedom
It’s unrealistic in today’s world to think that you can practice dentistry without accepting dental insurance as a form of payment. It’s been around so long and so many people rely on it that you pretty much have to accept it. However, you must know that by signing up as a PPO dentist the insurance company, not you, will have the bigger influence with your patients in a lot of areas.

The insurance company, not you, will determine what is a fair and reasonable price for your services. The insurance company, not you, will determine what treatment is best for your patient. And like it or not, a lot of patients will listen to their dental insurance carrier when deciding what treatment to receive. Many patients look at dentistry as just another commodity or service that you should try and get at the best price. And because their dental insurance pays for their dental care, they often choose to do what the dental insurance will pay for.

Signing up with dental insurance companies is likely necessary. But know that in so doing, you will likely limit your ability to practice dentistry on your terms and get paid what you legitimately deserve. Some of your freedom is the price you will pay.

Dentistry is a career that offers many wonderful, well-known benefits and can bring a lifetime of happiness. But there are also many pitfalls that can derail that happiness. With some early preparation and awareness, or even mid-career re-evaluation, these pitfalls can be avoided. Avoid unnecessary debt at all costs, treat your patients with the respects that they deserve and expect, and understand how dental insurance will affect your career. With those bases covered, you will have the head start you need.